A counterargument to the importance of climate change for malaria transmission has been that regions where an effect of warmer temperatures is expected, have experienced a marked decrease in seasonal epidemic size since the turn of the new century. This decline has been observed in the densely populated highlands of East Africa at the center of the earlier debate on causes of the pronounced increase in epidemic size from the 1970s to the 1990s. The turnaround of the incidence trend around 2000 is documented here with an extensive temporal record for malaria cases for both Plasmodium falciparum and Plasmodium vivax in an Ethiopian highland. With statistical analyses and a process-based transmission model, we show that this decline was driven by the transient slowdown in global warming and associated changes in climate variability, especially ENSO. Decadal changes in temperature and concurrent climate variability facilitated rather than opposed the effect of interventions.